Another sad spectacle at Duke University

University commencement speakers took the stage this past weekend to advise students of the Class of 2022 now ready to join the real world.  I observed the commencement ceremony at Duke University, as my niece graduated magna cum laude.  As a Duke alumna myself, I was proud of her: half of her college experience was marred by extreme COVID lockdown policies, yet she remained focused, worked hard, and earned her accomplishments.  My extended family — which included several Duke grads and employees — settled atop Wallace Wade stadium, bracing unseasonably cold weather, awaiting the commencement speakers' advice to the next generation. 

The featured Duke commencement speaker was General Motors CEO Mary Barra.  She spoke of five lessons from the kitchen table.  I appreciated her speech and humble advice, especially grateful that she did not receive the memo that the words "diversity" and "equity" are crucial features of modern-day academic discourse.  Unfortunately, her grounded advice will be overshadowed by the student commencement speech preceding it.

Prior to Ms. Barra's speech, the chosen Duke undergraduate student speaker spoke of a "Duke Nation."  The Duke senior described the idea that if a moat existed around Duke, "[Duke] could be its own tiny island nation like Cuba or Sri Lanka."  "Cuba?" I thought at the time.  "Well, that probably isn't a terrible comparison when you really think about the communist collectivism on campuses."  The remaining speech contained citizenship metaphors, passport allusions, and a "world of experiences."

This senior had an impressive résumé, including an impending Bachelor of Science degrees in statistical science and economics with a religion minor.  She had been an editor with the Duke student newspaper and a Young Trustee Finalist, had studied at the Ecologic Institute in Germany for a summer, and was a Duke Student Government senator, among other accomplishments, and she "is passionate about empowering women of color in STEM," according to the commencement program biography.

At Duke, students apply to be commencement speaker.  The applicants face two rounds before a speaker is chosen by committee.  Unfortunately, this 2022 committee did not perform its due diligence.  On May 9, the Duke University student newspaper, The Chronicle, published a piece detailing the overt similarities between this student's speech and a speech given at a Harvard commencement by a student from Kuwait in 2014.  As I type this essay, Duke has already removed Sunday's speech in question from the university's 2022 Commencement main website.

Although disappointed with this development, I am not shocked.  Since my graduation from Duke, academic institutions, and societal culture at large, have changed significantly.  Duke has been at the center of several controversies.  In 2006, several Duke lacrosse players were charged with rape at an off-campus party with no evidence — all for political gain by a Durham, N.C. district attorney.  Duke University rushed to judgment, firing the lacrosse coach when he stood with his innocent players.  Even at the very highest levels of the university faculty and administration, its students were guilty until proven innocent.  These student athletes' lives were forever changed.  To the everlasting credit of Duke alumni, contributions to the school dropped precipitously; the Durham district attorney was fired; and the N.C. state attorney general took the unusual step of exonerating the accused athletes, declaring them innocent of the charges leveled against them.  Formal apologies by Duke professors and administrators, however, were "few and far between."

After jumping to conclusions about imaginary violence, a decade later, Duke University supported concrete violence.  Following the events in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the esteemed symbol of Duke University itself — the Duke Chapel — was the scene of criminal activity.  Vandals significantly damaged the face of a Robert E. Lee statue, which was one of ten figures overlooking the entrance of the chapel.  Duke president Vincent Price, who presided over the 2022 commencement, immediately removed the statue without notice, "to express the university's values."  This event provided the impetus for President Price to form a commission to "guide the president and the Board of Trustees when an issue arises related to the appropriateness of a memorial or the naming of a facility on campus."  Regardless of one's position on Confederate statue management, the violence of anonymous vandals was rewarded by Duke University leadership.

President Price did not stop his social justice reasoning at mere statue commissions.  On June 19, 2020, the Duke president declared that Duke would "require anti-racism and anti-bias training for every member of our faculty, student body, and staff."  (I admit I wondered if Statue Vandalism 101 would be part of the training.)  In this announcement, President Price made many problematic presumptions.  He also ignored prior controversial anti-racist trainings at Duke and their role in the resignation of a Duke professor. 

In 2017, Duke Divinity School strongly urged its faculty to participate in Phase I training from the Racial Equity Institute (REI), an organization that delivers training based in "systemic racism" and calls standardized testing a "racial weapon."  Professor Paul Griffiths questioned the "ideological commitments" behind the trainings, suggesting the training would be "intellectually flaccid."  Professor Griffiths's comments were labeled racist, sexist, and bigoted by the then-dean of the Divinity School, Elaine Heath.  Professor Griffiths ultimately resigned, stating, "The word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference — these no longer have the place they once had in the university."

Professor Griffiths was clear in his observations about the "intellectually flaccid" trainings and that the "search for clarity" no longer has a place in the university.  And Duke University is hardly the only institute of higher learning plagued by decisions based in woke ideology and political correctness rather than consistency and objectivity.  Princeton University eliminated the requirement for Greek and Latin for majors in classics.  A Harvard University diversity director publicly criticized a biology professor in her department for using the words "male" and "female" instead of "pregnant people."

Is it shocking that a senior university student thought she could deliver a commencement speech so brazenly appropriated from another recent graduation speech without any accountability?  Considering how Duke and other higher institutions have passed over the standards of open, honest discussion and creative, well founded debate so long expected of our universities, only to be ruled by shallow social concepts, I come to the sad realization that the answer is "no, I am not shocked."  I only wonder if Duke will attempt to disown this student — who so unfortunately personifies the results of the universities' own failures — because she has exposed yet another sad failing of a once great university system.

Image: Ilyse Whitney via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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